What the impact of a younger generation means for the future of the meeting industry

No two generations are the same. When it comes to interest in technology and the rapidly changing landscape of digital interaction, one size does not fit all. Smart Meeting spoke with Ken Holsinger, senior vice president of strategy at the event management company Freeman, to pinpoint how data can be used to enhance the event experience for all ages.

Lesson 1: Don’t Forget Gen X

In the Freeman Event Attendee Intent and Trends Report Q1 2023, respondents in the Gen X demographic (45 years and older) are focused on professional obligation. This differs substantially from the expectations of Gen Z and millennials who crave a more personalized experience.

Of course, not everyone in a given age range will react identically to an event marketing message. In fact, Gen X is considered a “bridge generation” with some identifying more as boomers while the younger Gen X identify more as millennials. But understanding tendencies of a group can help to cater messaging to individuals.

Lesson 2: The Changing Work Force is Female

According to the Department of Labor and The Wall Street Journal, the current and incoming workforce of millennials and younger Generation X are slowly overshadowing older Generation X and Baby Boomers respectively. By the year 2025, millennials age 35-39 will make up 19.1% of the labor force, while the 20-24 Gen Zs follow close behind at 14.6%. Generation X 45-49 years old will hold their own millennials at 17.1% but as Xers near retirement age, these numbers are likely reverse.

“You’re seeing a major shift. Look at the acceleration of retirement among boomers. We know that in the workforce this was already happening, but the pandemic accelerated that retirement rate significantly post-pandemic and Gen X isn’t big enough to fill the void,” said Holsinger.

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Originally, boomer attendance was slanted more male, however the demographic shift has changed this. The shift of female attendees at B2B events has made a drastic shift from 20% to 34%.

“This rapid shift means that we have a completely different audience that we’re dealing with, and they are more female, they are more diverse in almost every way. Of course, their marketing preferences are different.”

One thing to be aware of is not only the changing face of the attendee majority, but their link with market trends. “Consumer market trends are what are driving their decision making. And in fact, I would project that B2B is dead. It’s not that the marketplace is, it’s that the way that we engage attendees (and) they are consumers first and overwhelmingly so,” said Holsinger.

Lesson 3: Don’t Email Gen Z

Email blasts and newsletters were once king of the communication castle. Now, event planners looking to grow a Gen Z audience may need to get more creative in engaging the younger demographic. Based on research done by HubSpot and Brandwatch, 57% percent of Gen Z attendees discover new things through social media, followed by 46% through YouTube ads and 42% searching the internet. While older demographics are more likely to engage via Facebook, Millennials and Gen Z are found more on TikTok and YouTube.

What does that mean for the future of the events industry? Well, a few things. The changing of the guard between generations means events will need to be more flexible and open to quickly adjusting to accommodate the younger generation’s preferences of engagement.

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But communication is just one brick in a wall of ideas to consider when addressing the various generations that attend events now.

“Typically, (Gen Z and millennial) buyer journeys start with some sort of search and across all categories. And then they may funnel in from word of mouth, or they may funnel in from some other ad, but it usually leads to search and then goes out from there,” said Holsinger.

Lesson 4: The Covid Factor

The Covid-19 pandemic is still a major factor in how some people are choosing to attend events and age may play a role. Luckily, attendance appears to be on an upswing. However, planners should consider the factors that are keeping attendees at home, such as decreased travel and training budgets, inflation and recession concerns, attendees may still be hesitant to commit to attending.

The Freeman report calls out the younger generation’s need for connection and communication and how they value in-person events following lockdown. “You need to plan activities at your events that can only be done in person,” Holsinger continued. Save everything else for online. Freeman found that 73% of attendees want to experience demos, while 53% want structured sessions in a classroom or with a speaker or panel.

Holsinger suggested that meeting planners will want remote work to continue to elevate the attendees’ desire to experience in-person engagement. “The more (Gen Z and millennials) spend on screens—whether it be mobile or VR—the more they value in-person (experiences). In-person events are a value proposition and an experimental proposition that this new generation prioritizes over previous generations,” he said.

Lesson 5: Community Mindset

Care is a two-way street. Younger generations want to invest in a worthy cause and meeting planners have the challenge of finding a way to create a community mindset.

“Millennials and Gen Z say: ‘Tell me about your cause.’” What are you here to accomplish? It goes from more of a club mindset to a community mindset and many trade organizations haven’t made that shift.

Attendees may want to come to a professional trade association, but whether they join as a member is really up to you to convey the why of your existence, not the features and benefits of membership, said Holsinger.